2004-07-30 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

It has been nearly three years since American Airlines Flight 587 augured into Beach 131 Street and Newport Avenue on November 12, 2001, killing all 260 people on the plane and five local residents on the ground.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has been investigating the crash since its “Go Team” arrived in Belle Harbor.

That was 32 months ago. I would have hoped that in that time, the agency would have been able to come up with a final report that would provide some closure to the families of those who died.

The NTSB has held one evidentiary hearing on the crash last year. At that hearing, a final report was promised for this summer.

Now, however, an NTSB advisory issued last week says, “A board meeting will be scheduled in Washington, probably in the fall, at which five board members will consider the final report, which will contain conclusions, the probable cause, and any safety recommendations pertinent to the findings.”

The Wave was told only that the meeting would be “sometime after Labor Day.” That leaves a lot of territory.

The NTSB says that “most of the investigative efforts are completed,” and that “only minor technical issues are being resolved to insure an accurate report.”

It is clear from everything that has been going on since the last meeting that the blame will fall on the First Officer, Sten Molin. The report will most likely say that Molin found himself in a wake turbulence event and overflew the rudder, pulling the tail right off the plane. American Airlines will argue that the Airbus rudder system was flawed and that the accident was a result of that flaw. Airbus will argue that the training American Airline gave Molin was flawed and that the accident was a result of training.

It’s easy to blame the dead. They can’t respond to the charges against them.

There are many who do not believe the “wake turbulence” explanation.

Vic Trombettas, a computer systems specialist who has been on the story with his website, www.usread.com, since the beginning has his own ideas. He has teamed up with Brett Hoffstadt, a pilot and aviation safety specialist, to issue a final report of his own. The Wave will publish that long report over several issues.

The report contains a summary, however, that distances the findings of his report from the NTSB’s.

The website’s final report says:

The NTSB’s hypothesis is that the cause of the crash was the tail separating from the fuselage, and that the tail separated because the pilot, as a result of his rudder movements, placed loads on the tail that exceeded it’s ultimate limit.  Although the NTSB has not yet released its official statement of cause, these basic conclusions are already fixed and shared by all of the parties to the investigation.

The raging debate between Airbus and American Airlines is––why did the Pilot move the rudder pedals as aggressively as he did? Is it because he was trained improperly by American Airlines (Airbus’ contention), or is it because the rudder pedal system is the most sensitive in the industry (American Airlines’ contention)? 

This is a summary of our main findings to date and what the evidence suggests was the probable cause of the crash:

1. The pilot was not battling wake turbulence (although he may have thought he was) but the effects of an event inside the aircraft, which occurred at least 8 seconds before the tail separated.

2. The NTSB’s Human Performance Group, operating under the assumption that the pilot was reacting to wake turbulence, stated that the turbulence was “barely perceptible”, not typical, and entirely inconsistent with the very aggressive series of control inputs by the pilot. The pilot was using all the controls at his disposal (roll, yaw, and pitch controls) and called for maximum power three times in a span of only 7 seconds.  

3. The vertical tail separation came later in the crash sequence than the NTSB has concluded, and was not the first object to depart the aircraft. Therefore, the vertical tail separation was a consequence, not a cause, of a crash sequence that was already underway and inevitable. This conclusion is supported by the radar data, the ECAM system, the tollbooth video, and the eyewitnesses––all which indicate that the tail, and engines, departed later in the crash sequence.

4. The initiating event was very likely an explosion or fire onboard the aircraft that occurred no later than the time of the 2nd alleged wake encounter––when the pilot began his aggressive control inputs. Dozens of eyewitnesses who saw the tail separate reported an explosion or fire which preceded tail separation.

5. In addition to being visible to witnesses in the Bay and on land, this explosion/fire caused unknown damage to the aircraft structure and led to multiple system failures and electrical anomalies, including the corruption of ATC transmissions; CVR malfunctions; disabling the rudder and some of the spoilers; possibly responsible for the premature interruption of all data flow to the DFDR that occurred 13 seconds before impact; and prematurely disabling the transponder (the device on board that transmits the plane’s altitude back to the radar facilities). All of these events, a direct result of the initiating event, occurred before the aircraft had even begun its descent or lost both engines.

6. Due to the substandard debris collection and documentation by the NTSB, an unprofessional and incomplete examination of the CVR, and other investigative deficiencies, we do not have enough evidence to identify the exact location, source, or cause of the explosion/fire.

7. Many witnesses provide vital clues about the crash sequence, yet the NTSB did not conduct a thorough, intense investigation in this important area, failing to do basic tasks such as line-of-sight measurements with witnesses or even interviewing them at the locations where they observed the aircraft. In fact, the NTSB had consistently referred to the witnesses as unreliable and released witness statistics in such a manner as to smear their collective reliability.  

8. The FBI is withholding potentially crucial, original, video evidence of the aircraft in flight at the most critical moments, failing to release the video to the NTSB, the families of the victims, or to U.S.Read in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. Surveillance cameras at a tollbooth facility at a nearby bridge captured the video images. The NTSB felt no need to demand the original and best quality video from the FBI. 

It is the firmly held opinion of U.S.Read that the NTSB failed early on in their investigation as they prematurely declared this crash an accident and then very quickly concluded that tail separation was the initiating event without properly analyzing all the evidence. 

A retired NTSB Senior Air Safety Investigator told U.S.Read:

“In the case of AA 587, the NTSB did not even lay out a wreckage trail diagram.  This is a basic procedure that is performed when any aircraft is shedding parts, like AA 587 was doing. They did not give any credence to the many qualified witnesses who saw AA 587 behaving differently than what the NTSB said it was doing.  To say the NTSB has botched this investigation is an understatement.”

The final report from USRead gets you thinking. At least, it gets me thinking. I believe that there are many in Rockaway who no longer care about the crash and the Rockaway memorial that might one day honor those who died in the crash. It seems to have become a non-issue for many locals.

For those who are interested, however, the question then becomes, why the NTSB would cover up the truth about the crash of American Airlines Flight 587? There are many possible reasons for a government cover up.

You have to put this in the context of 2001. Four airplanes had recently been used by Muslim terrorists to destroy the World Trade Center and to badly damage the Pentagon.

Confidence in the airline industry was at a new low. People who normally flew as a matter of course were staying away from flying in droves, convinced that more planes were about to be taken over and used as weapons.

Then, just a month and a day after the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, comes the second worst airline disaster in American history.

With confidence in the airline industry already at an all-time low, what would be the consequences of announcing that either terrorism or a flawed aircraft was the problem?

Think about it. Had the NTSB said that there was damage on the aircraft that showed some type of internal explosion, another shoe-bomber, then fewer people would consider flying as an option. The airline industry would have dried up completely.

Had the NTSB announced that the Airbus A300-600 was a flawed aircraft, then American Airlines would have gone out of business shortly thereafter. The A300 is the backbone of the airline’s inventory, the heavy-worker that pays the freight on its Central and South American routes.

The government obviously could blame neither terrorists nor the A300 no matter what the “twisted metal” proved.

Instead, blame the pilot.

It the problem were this one plane and this one pilot, whether it was a small flaw in an aircraft system or it was the pilot over-flying the rudder, then all is well and the industry can continue to rebuild from 2001.

That is what you will get when the NTSB gets around to providing a final report.

It’s CYA time for the airline industry and the NTSB has become its cheerleader.

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